Dirty Linen

Patrick O’Brian

  • Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the ‘Bounty’ by Greg Dening
    Canto, 445 pp, £7.95, April 1994, ISBN 0 521 46718 7
  • Admiral Satan: The Life and Campaigns of Suffren by Roderick Cavaliero
    Tauris, 312 pp, £29.95, May 1994, ISBN 1 85043 686 X

Both these books are concerned with the sea in the days of the sailing Navy and with the nature of command, so much enhanced in distant waters when communication with government might take half a year rather than half a minute. Drake executed Doughty in Patagonia without a qualm; or at least without being disturbed for doing so when he came home.

Mr Bligh’s Bad Language deals primarily with the mutiny of the Bounty, weaving the account in and out of an ethnographical discussion of life aboard men-of-war and of the political and spiritual life of the Polynesians, with great emphasis on their ideas of the sacred and of sacrifice.

The tale of the Bounty is familiar, but it is not always accurately told, much less filmed, so perhaps it is worth restating the main lines. In 1787, Lieutenant William Bligh, RN, aged 33, was given the command of HM Armed Vessel Bounty of 215 tons and four four-pounder guns, a merchantman bought by the Navy Board and fitted up with the help of Sir Joseph Banks, who was then guiding Kew towards its glorious future, as a floating conservatory to carry young breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies, there to provide cheap food for the African slaves. The ship, the voyage and the appointment were all unusual. Bligh’s father was a minor customs official; the boy did not really go to sea until he was nearly 16, and then he spent his early days as a midshipman in the Hunter, a humble ten-gun pink, rather than in a rated ship, where he would have had many companions of the more conventional naval type who, at a formative age, might have taught him more about their language and ways than ever he learnt. It is true that he moved on to the Crescent, which though called a frigate was in fact a captured French privateer; and from this very modest height he sank to the Ranger, a snow that carried only eight little three-pounders and that harried smugglers off the Isle of Man. In 1776, having served his time as a midshipman, he passed his examination for lieutenant; but he was not of the usual commissioned officer material, or so the examining captains thought. In any case, he was not given a commission, but became a master, that is to say a warrant officer chiefly responsible for navigation, of wardroom rank but subordinate to all lieutenants, a station that carried almost no hope of advancement but that probably satisfied Bligh’s ambitions. As master of the Resolution he sailed with Cook on the great man’s last voyage, which took him to Tahiti among other places. Cook was satisfied with his seamanship, navigation and surveying.

Unlike some of his shipmates, Bligh was not promoted when Resolution came home; but he was re-employed, and when his ship, the frigate Belle Poule, distinguished herself at the Battle of the Dogger Bank in 1781, he was given a lieutenancy. A lieutenancy, but of course no command, and with the war over very little likelihood of one, or even of employment. The Bounty was a godsend to him, for although during the peace he had been sailing a connection’s merchantman to the West Indies, a master-mariner’s status was not to be compared to that of a King’s officer. Quite how or why he was given the ship is not known, since he had not yet met Sir Joseph Banks, the prime mover in the scheme and later his patron. On the other hand, the Admiralty was aware that there were few officers who knew the South Seas, and of those few not all would accept so small a ship.

So Bligh was appointed. The glory went to his head and he made an absurd request to be promoted master and commander, a rank that then stood between lieutenant and post-captain: absurd, because it was foreign to naval tradition, and Cook himself had made his first voyage as a lieutenant. The glory went to his head and stayed there: although he had been a good subordinate, he was a wretched commander, and by the time the Bounty reached Tenerife, a fortnight after sailing, he was scarcely on speaking terms with his officers. He did not get on with the ship’s people, either, though for a long while he was friends with Fletcher Christian, who belonged to a good family in Cumberland, who had sailed with him on some of his merchant voyages, and whom he rated first AB, then midshipman, then master’s mate and acting lieutenant.

It was not that Bligh was much of a flogger by naval standards, but he nagged: he could not forget his authority for a moment and he interfered perpetually, complaining, ranting and abusing people, working himself up into a state of indignant excitement, gesticulating, threatening to strike and sometimes doing so. His abuse was found extremely offensive. The Navy has always used harsh words, disobliging expressions and even oaths, but it was a largely conventional language and even educated men like Christian took little notice. But the captain of the Bounty’s abuse was of a different nature: his was the Bad Language of the title, bad in the sense of wrong, the language of one who is foreign to the community. Bligh never learnt the common language of sea officers addressing their equals or inferiors – language in its widest sense of words, stress, intonation, facial and bodily expression, tone, pitch and all the rest. Whether this arose from his rather squalid early years or whether he merely had a tin ear makes little difference to the result.

When the Bounty (never a happy ship) was on her return, laden with breadfruit trees, she stopped at an island some three weeks out of Tahiti for wood, water and victuals, including coconuts. Some days later, on 27 April 1789, Bligh came on deck in the morning and said that his personal store of coconuts had shrunk. After a great deal of fuss and hectoring he made all hands turn out their own nuts, threatening them with this and that; and according to some accounts he called Christian, his acting lieutenant, a liar and a thief in the presence of the crew. Then later in the day he asked him to dinner. Those who love to whitewash Bligh deny the insult, though they admit the fuss and the invitation; but for others ‘thief’ and ‘liar’ fit perfectly well with a man who had little notion of ordinary relations and who used language very badly, except where his superiors were concerned.

At all events the next morning he was woken by Christian and some other armed men. They tied his hands behind his back, brought him on deck, lashed him to the mizzenmast, shouted and argued in a muddled fashion for some hours, got more and more drunk, and eventually thrust him into the launch with 18 others.

The mutiny had not been premeditated and the situation was totally confused. Some were pushed into the boat against their will, others were forcibly kept aboard, some did not seem to know what was really afoot or what they should do. Happily the bosun and one or two others kept their wits about them and secured a quadrant and a compass, while the better disposed mutineers (or semi-mutineers) let them have some water and food and four cutlasses before they were cast adrift, 19 men in an over crowded 23-foot launch very low in the water.

It was a horrible voyage. Without firearms the islands were far too dangerous, and their only hope was Timor, nearly four thousand miles away. A horrible journey, cold and wet by night, no room for all to lie down, perpetual hunger (almost no fish, very few birds, and those eaten raw), continual ill-will between Bligh, the master and the carpenter, on the edge of violence. Yet on 14 June the launch did reach Coupang in Timor. The Dutch treated them very kindly, and eventually those who survived the rigours of the boat voyage and the climate of the East Indies reached home, where Bligh at once set about justifying the loss of his ship. The Admiralty listened gravely, and sent out a frigate, the Pandora, to look for the mutineers. They, for their part, first tried the island Tubuai and then returned to Tahiti, all 25 of them. But Christian was extremely uneasy: if Bligh survived, Tahiti would be the first place in the Royal Navy’s search. He reached the island on 20 September, landed the 16 men who chose to stay and left almost at once with those of his own mind, six Polynesian men, 12 women and a little girl. In time they reached Pitcairn, a very remote and uninhabited island. Here they landed, stripped the ship and burned her. They were not discovered until 1808, when only one of the mutineers was still alive. The others had been killed by their shipmates in quarrels over women, or by the women themselves, or by the oppressed Polynesians. But of course their descendants were there, and they are there to this day, a singularly law-abiding community. At one time they spoke an English based on the Authorised Version and the Book of Common Prayer that struck visiting sailors by its purity; but since the coming of Seventh Day Adventists this appears to have changed.

On 23 March 1791, the Pandora reached Tahiti and seized the remaining mutineers. They were carried back to England in utterly inhuman conditions, and those who survived the voyage were court-martialled: six were condemned to death (three in fact were hanged): four were acquitted; two of the condemned were pardoned and one remitted.

Courts martial and mutinies haunted Bligh’s career. He can scarcely be blamed for the trouble in his ship the Director, where the crew rose and turned him out, since it was part of the greater collective mutiny at the Nore; but it was his own fault when he was brought before a court himself a little later. As captain of the Warrior, he had publicly called Lieutenant Frazier a rascal and a scoundrel, shaking his fist in the officer’s face. The charge of ‘tyrannical and oppressive and unofficerlike behaviour’ was found ‘in part proved’: Bligh was reprimanded and admonished to be more correct in his language.

Vain advice. In 1805, Bligh was sent to govern New South Wales. He sailed in 1806, quarrelled furiously with Captain Short of the Porpoise, the convoy’s escort, sent him back from Sydney to England to be court-martialled on charges brought by his own officers, and ruined him by legal quibbles over a promised landgrant. Mrs Short died on the homeward voyage: Captain Short was honourably acquitted.

It did not take long for Bligh to make himself ‘intensely unpopular by the harsh exercise of authority’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition) and in 1808 he was deposed by the military, led by Major Johnston of the 102nd Foot. The mutineers allowed him to return to the Porpoise, he promising on his honour as an officer and a gentleman to take her straight back to England. He did not do so, but kept plying between Sydney and Tasmania until relief came in the form of Lachlan Macquarrie and the 73rd Regiment. Bligh then went home and Johnston was tried for mutiny: the astonishingly mild sentence was dismissal from the service, no more. And when the unhappy Lieutenant Kent of the Porpoise, whom Bligh had kept under close arrest for 23 months for having removed his broad pennant, was also court-martialled, he was acquitted entirely. By this time Bligh was at the head of the post captains’ list and by seniority he became rear admiral of the blue: he was given his flag, but no further command whatsoever.

Mr Bligh’s Bad Language is concerned with much more than the mutiny of the Bounty. It has an important ethnographical and historical side and Mr Dening has some uncommonly interesting things to say, particularly when he deals with quantifiable matters such as the flogging of British seamen in the Pacific during the 18th century and the value of their diet in calories; he also gives a fine account of Tahitian groups and policies. A great deal of the ethnography seems to carry conviction where Polynesian affairs are discussed. But where Mr Dening speaks of English society and the Royal Navy a number of small, sometimes very small, errors in idiom and usage raise doubts about his qualifications. No one familiar with the Navy of the time could provide Bounty with mezzanine decks; no one at home with British ways of speech could write ‘Lord Cuthbert Collingwood’; and the description of that stout, intrepid botanist Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, as a social dilettante is likely to shake the reader’s confidence in this rambling, sometimes overinstructive, but highly idiosyncratic and often valuable book.

What a very different face of things is seen in Roderick Cavaliero’s Admiral Satan, a life of Pierre-André de Suffren, the French commander who led the Royal Navy such a dance in the Indian Ocean during the 1780s. Whereas Bligh appears to have possessed no personal authority – no authority at all apart from his commission – Suffren overflowed with it. He caused Indian shipwrights and dockyard mateys to hurry as no Indian had ever hurried before – hence his name of Admiral Satan – and after a shattering action he could ready his ships for sea even sooner than the Royal Navy, no sluggard in the matter, though for most of the time he had to refit with makeshift spars and even masts, and with captured cordage.

This authority did not come from his being a nobleman – James Cook had as much or more, and his father was a farm labourer. It was rather a matter of size, spiritual size, vast stores of animal spirits and eagerness for battle, great professional ability, even physical bulk – he ate far, far too much and he was enormous. And of course he spoke the language properly, the language in Mr Dening’s sense. Indeed he spoke several, all properly: his native Provençal in its educated version and (even more readily) in its coarse, often very coarse and obscene popular manner; the French, if not of Paris then at least of Marseille; the particular idiom used by the Knights of Malta; and naturally the language of the sea, in which he expressed himself with great force and eloquence, so much to his seamen’s satisfaction that they followed him from ship to ship.

Suffren was born in 1728, one of the younger sons of the Marquis de Saint-Tropez, a very considerable family in Provence: considerable, but numerous and none too wealthy, and the younger sons were expected to provide for themselves. One way of doing this was to become a Knight of Malta: another was to join the Navy. Young Suffren did both, being admitted to the Order as an absentee minor when he was a child and at 14 going to the naval college before joining the Solide as a cadet and seeing some action in the confused battle off Toulon in 1744, and then a good deal of sea service. In 1747, he made his profession as a Knight of Malta, taking the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience: it is said that he always respected the first. He then joined the Monarque, one of a squadron of eight taking a great convoy to Canada. Hawke was waiting for them off Finisterre with 14 sail: he doubled on the French line of battle and took six ships, including the Monarque; and Suffren was a prisoner for three months, hating every minute of it. Like so many French sailors, he could never be brought to love the English.

The peace of 1748 set him free and he went to Malta to perform his ‘caravans’, a series of cruises in the Order’s galleys, sometimes protecting merchantmen from Barbary corsairs. This curious symbiosis of the Order and the French Navy was of long standing, but it did make for divisions and jealousies: the knights, generally belonging to old, very well-connected families, were suspected of looking down on their shipmates, who, though necessarily noble, were not necessarily very noble.

Suffren did in fact look down on many of them, but he did so because they were stupid, incompetent, wanting in initiative and fighting spirit, and devoted to the dogma of the line of battle, never to be broken whatever opportunity might offer – an essentially defensive state of mind, the product of a closed, inbred officer caste. How right he was became evident in 1781, when, after years of service in the West Indies and North America (and another captivity) he was given a squadron to protect the Dutch at the Cape, strengthen the French forces in Mauritius, and then proceed to India to help the Nawab of Mysore in his war against the English, chiefly by destroying the Royal Naval ships in those waters.

But there he found Sir Edward Hughes, a less ebullient commander, a gentler man, but quite as well supplied with fighting spirit, a thorough seaman who took great care of his crews and whose officers and men understood their calling through and through: his ships were beautifully handled, as Suffren himself confessed. The two squadrons fought four battles in 1782, very furious battles with heavy casualties and great damage on either side, but no ships taken. In all Suffren had the advantage in number and in all he tried aggressive tactics such as doubling on the enemy as Hawke had done, or breaking his line, like Rodney in his great victory over Admiral de Grasse; but every time, some of his captains failed him, misunderstanding signals or keeping to their old rigorous line ahead or simply hanging back, out of harm’s way. It was only in the last fight off Cuddalore in 1783, when reinforcements had given Hughes the apparent advantage, that Suffren adhered to the conventional line of battle. On this one occasion his captains behaved well, and Hughes, his water all gone and his men dying of scurvy, could not prevent the relief from Cuddalore, desperately fought for, but vainly alas, since in fact the war had been over for six months, the news of peace arriving in India a day or so later.

This part of the book, with its clear diagrams of each action and details of Suffren’s prodigious feats in getting his ships ready time and again with unconquerable spirit, makes capital reading. The earlier chapters dealing with his activities in America call for an atlas at hand, and they are heavier going. But the whole is the fruit of an immense amount of reading and of research in archives, particularly those of the Order, and it gives a most convincing picture of a man with very great qualities indeed and a splendid zest for life. He had defects, to be sure, some of them deeply distressing: yet sitting down to dinner with Suffren would have been far, far more agreeable than sitting down with Bligh, although the Frenchman ate with his fingers and was no great lover of clean linen.